Thursday, April 1st, 2004

In Pursuit of Enlightenment: New Watercolors by Alexander Creswell and Dee Shapiro: “The Last Time I Saw Cuba”

Hirshl Adler Galleries
April 24 (21 East 70th Street, 212.535.8810)

Andre Zarre Gallery
May 1 ( 529 West 20th Street, 212. 255.0202)

A version of this review appeared in The New York Sun, April 15, 2004

Alexander Creswell The Supreme Court, Washington, D.C. 2001 watercolor on paper, 11 1/4 x 14 13/16 inches Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Galleries
Alexander Creswell, The Supreme Court, Washington, D.C. 2001 watercolor on paper, 11 1/4 x 14 13/16 inches Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Galleries

If you are in the market for society portraits of Stately Houses or a souvenir of some luxurious site marked off in your Michelin, you are at the right place. Here are eighty three views of châteaux and palazzi, foreign and domestic. Each comes in a gold frame gorgeously lit to blind you to the contents. A full color brochure is on hand to simulate gravitas. This is the art industry’s version of une piège à touristes. A tourist trap.

A skilled technician, Alexander Creswell has mastered certain crucial effects: diagonal shafts of light across interior space, the glitter of gilded surfaces, sunlight on darkened floors. He is quite good at these and applies them like sauce to whatever dish is in front of him.

The Library of Congress, the Tiepolo Room in the Palazzo Labia, New York’s Central Synagogue and Venice’s Santa Maria della Salute bask in the same rays of grace that radiate from the hands of mass-market madonnas. Piety trumps reality in devotional art and Mr. Creswell is devoted to lavish depiction of lavish views.

Color, too, is formulaic. An unnatural, saturated blue sky hangs over nearly everything, from snow-covered trellises at Lyndhurst to Galileo’s tower in Veneto. A tendency toward gaudiness is a studio product that reveals something about Mr. Creswell’s gauge of his audience. He makes generous use of a reddish tonality that artificially heats his motifs, rinsing fossils in warm brandy.

Mr. Creswell is less interested in the structure and purpose of a building-the sine qua non of architecture-than in surface embellishment. His handling of the Salute is instructive. The basilica is viewed close up and from below, an angle emphasizing exterior statuary while it dwarfs the great central dome and obliterates its imposing octagonal base. Here, as elsewhere, ornament dominates larger concerns. (Look up Turner’s “San Giorgio Maggiore, Early Morning.” Use it as a baseline for judging Mr. Creswell’s supposed early morning light on the solemn Salute.)

As long ago as 1819, J.M.W. Turner was touched by the melancholy of this once-great maritime republic. The fragility and vulnerability of Venice is apparent in every one of his watercolors and his sketchbooks. But Mr. Creswell has a product to move and glamour sells.

His canals are clean-swept but for a hint of gondola. Water taxies and vaporetto stops would spoil the effect. Mr. Creswell’s nostalgic Venice is a place where pizza-if it even exits-is never delivered by a sixteen foot speedboat. There are no laundry, restaurant supply or police boats. There is only the graceful gondola, empty of Japanese tourists and bored-by-the-hour concertina players in costume. No mold grows on the foundations of tourist art .

I have never toured the old manses of Newport but I have been to Sicily, which features in the itinerary. I have seen World War II pillboxes still intact and cement block housing minus roofs to save taxes. Mr. Creswell sees only pre-Garibaldi villas, facades sugared with golden scumbles of cadmium yellow. His ruined churches, romantic in decay, are more a nod to Ruskin than a response to the motif.

Although he quotes John Singer Sargent as inspiration, Mr. Creswell works in the tradition of Ralph Lauren. Ralphie from Brooklyn had a knack for exploiting fantasies of aristocracy. So does Alex from Surrey.

We can easily spot art inflation in funky venues. It gets harder when an established gallery lends its prestige to eye-candy for patrons whose pockets are deeper than their sensibilities.

Dee Shapiro Restoration on Paseo del Prado 2004 oil on canvas, 2-1/2 x 10 inches Courtesy the artist
Dee Shapiro Restoration on, Paseo del Prado 2004 oil on canvas, 2-1/2 x 10 inches Courtesy the artist

Dee Shapiro occupies the less spectacular, more interesting end of the sight-seeing spectrum. On view in two rooms is an extensive series of small oil streetscapes from Havana and surrounding locales. Instead of an ersatz Grand Tour, she offers an idiosyncratic walk down no-name streets. She by-passes monuments, official buildings and landmarks to stop across from a vista typical of its neighborhood.

Each panel is only two-and-a-half by ten inches. The reduced size maximizes Ms. Shapiro’s’ strength-an eye for color play within a scenic design – without requiring the subtleties of drawing or tone that accompany larger formats. Scale affects expressive power but these vivacious distillations carry a punch that makes them seem larger than they are.

A trip to Cuba in February, 2003, ignited the impetus for this exhibition. Views are not photographic transcriptions of real scenes but arrangements of typical motifs. This modus operandi permits Ms. Shapiro, a refugee from the Pattern and Decoration movement, to devise streetscapes that evoke a sense of place. She is not documenting but summoning, conjuring up a feel of what Havana looks like.

And it looks depressed. Colorful but poor. Ms. Shapiro’s miniature format does not permit close description. But high detail is not needed to convey the desuetude. An absence of people or trees on these streets of sagging walls and blackened windows is enough. “Calle Tipico” might not exist precisely as depicted but its desolation is real.

In “Cocotaxis,” a faded blue ’50’s Buick is parked next to a string of the latest in Cuban transportation design: a bright yellow, open-sided cross between a golf cart and scooter. “Varadero” ends a row of pink shanties with a vivid red wall. Identical windows in a drab Revolutionary housing block struggle to differentiate themselves with a jumble of shades, curtains, and posters. Nineteenth century balconies abut shuttered shops and cold drink concessions.